The greatest achievement of Karl Marx

Ideology and pragmatism #3 – Socialism
The Liberal Bubble

2013-09-29 Marx

There is an exchange in the September 2013 issue of the Freeman wherein Gary Chartier argues that
We Should Abandon the Term “Capitalism” while Tibor Machan says that We Should Stand By the Term “Capitalism.”   The question has been debated before, I was planning for a long time myself  to write this post to make the argument against using the term because I consider it a most fundamental hindrance in the battle against the enemies of freedom.

The greatest achievement of Karl Marx was the framing of the debate that we still haven’t settled 130 years after his death. Although he did not coin the term, the way it is used still to this day is largely based on his ideas, on his understanding of what the term means.

The heaviest burden: the Ideas of Marx

In the la-la-land of Marx’s imagination there is a world where we can all be farmers in the morning, brain surgeons in the afternoon and concert pianists in the evening. Marx did not like the world he lived in, he was yearning for the simplicity of primitive communism and he was hoping to recreate that idyllic world in his communist utopia.

Marx had a negative view of the division of labour, specialization, but most of his animosity was directed toward capital, the idea of private property, best expressed by the quote:
The enemy of being is having.”

But what is capital? An expression of time preference. Delayed consumption.  A prerequisite to specialization, the division of labour and trade. The prerequisite to the existence of civilization itself. “Having” is a necessary prerequisite for a better “being”, we can only improve our living conditions, we can only have a better life tomorrow if we forgo some of the “being” today. How well we can live tomorrow depends on how much we are willing or able to save, to accumulate today for tomorrow.
Capital, of course, has a more technical meaning “a resource or resources that can be used to generate economic wealth” but that meaning also incorporates the foundational elements of time preference and delayed consumption. Capital must be accumulated, must be controlled, must be used for some economic goal in order to be called capital.
One could argue that capital is a positive term because it implies all the good things that are essential parts of it, but Marx’s focus on the ownership element turned it into a fundamentally negative notion. Capital is what the bad people have and use to oppress the good people with. It is capital itself that is evil and we can make the world a better place of we could only eliminate it.
Economy and politics is almost interchangeable in Marx’s world as he sees economics as the foundation of all political systems. He sees political order as a mere expression of the economic arrangement.

“Das Kapital” was used as the title of Marx’s chef d’oeuvre for a reason. His work is a condemnation of the system by focusing on what he considered to be its most evil element. Any time we refer to the economic system we live in as capitalism, we accept this fundamentally negative framework.

The second layer of the baggage – the communist experience

Marx did an excellent job obfuscating the difference between the economic and the political aspect of the term to begin with, but during the time of the ‘existing communism’ the two meaning became hopelessly intertwined. Capitalism can either be seen as an economic term describing the reliance on capital accumulation and private ownership as the driving force of economic progress versus central planning or as a political one where the essence of the political arrangement is private property as opposed to state ownership and control of the ‘means of production.’

Although Marx was a little vague on the implementation plan, Lenin and his successors did show the way through the dictatorship of the proletariat. The reality of the communist experience, the possibility to see central planning at work gave the term ‘capitalism’ a new life. The communist experience made it obvious that central planning does not work and that shifted the meaning slightly toward the positive. As long as the communist command economies existed, the word capitalism was just a synonym for free market democracies. (Free market as the economic and democracy as the political arrangement).
Marx never addressed the question of capital in a socialist/communist economy and it could be argued that this lack of understanding was a main contributor that led to the fall of all socialist experiments.  Central planners just assumed that as long as they follow the ‘scientific principles’ of Marxism, the solutions will reveal themselves.

During the cold war, the champions of the free market had no reason to reject the Marxist terminology as all the positive evidence was on their side. When the communists were talking about the evils of capitalism, all they had to do was to point to the benefits (higher living standards and more personal freedom) that the ‘capitalist’ system provided.

After the fall of the Soviet empire, the discussion is changing again. The negative comparison disappeared, the failures are pretty much forgotten, only the criticism of the existing system remains and getting more vigorous every day.

Capitalism V.3: Where we are today

Marx did not understand even the world he was living in, he couldn’t possibly have imagined the one we live in today, yet his brain-dead ideas are more alive today than they ever were in the past one hundred years.

Marx’s ideas, the labor theory of value, capitalism, the ownership of the means of production, his theory of social classes, class consciousness, socially necessary labour and surplus value, alienation and the very notion of the proletariat were highly debatable already 150 years ago and make no sense whatsoever today. I cannot think of a single idea of Marx that is relevant to the world we live in.
Any of us with some savings is an owner of ‘the means of production,’ the vast majority of us have nothing to do with what is defined as the proletariat, (even if there are some tenured professors of Marxism with most likely six figure salaries who insists that they are part of the exploited working class); chances are that robots may replace manual labour and the biggest problem of the poor is obesity.

The theories of Marx are completely irrelevant, yet, again, Marxism seems to be more alive than ever. What is then the appeal of Marxism today?
I suggest three elements:

  • Fear and loathing of progress
  • Envy
  • Hunger for power

All three of these elements of the neo-communist drive are fundamentally Marxist. Even if none of Marx’s ideas and theories is tenable today, these attitudes behind his system can easily stay alive. None of these attitudes are particularly positive or moral; they need to be dressed up in ideology and propaganda and Marxism is a good enough tool for that. What we need to notice however is that they have absolutely nothing to do with the means of production, exploitation or capital accumulation.

The theories of Marx that defined capitalism and framed the discussion about it were always just an excuse for an inhuman, envy driven and power-hungry political agenda. Marx defined capital and capitalism as the enemy of humanity. We have to recognise that for most people, the term ‘capitalism’ is not an objective descriptor but a judgement.

We cannot possibly argue effectively with the enemies of civilization, progress and humanity as long as we accept the fundamentally judgmental, negative framework of the debate. It is not enough to defend it; it is not enough to say that capitalism is not that bad; it is not enough to redefine the term, we should refuse to use it and the whole Marxist framework with it.

I will return to this last point to look at what drives the neo-communist movement today.

3 replies on “The greatest achievement of Karl Marx”

  1. In the most fundamental terms, ‘Capital’ can be seen as ‘the excess of production over consumption’. The basic question posed by differing political systems is ‘Who should control, or ‘own’, that excess – those who produced it or those who confiscate/expropriate it’? All social arrangements, from the individual self-sufficient recluse to nation states, produce ‘capital’ so it’s either free-market capitalism or state capitalism or something in between. It’s ALL capitalism. History tells us which works best, and when we allow our societies to drift towards state capitalism we become progressively worse off, heading toward inevitable collapse. The reverse is also true, as presently demonstrated by former totalitarian states permitting greater freedom.
    Looking forward to hearing how we might adopt alternate semantics after abandoning the term.
    • zorkthehun says:
      Your definition is another perfect example of the problem I was trying to illustrate. ‘Excess’, ‘surplus’ are negative, moralizing terms as they cannot possibly have an objective definition. ‘Excess’ is what I chose not to consume today. ‘Excess’ is what I chose not to consume because I wish to trade it for something else I need more. ‘Excess’ is what I may ‘consume’ over a very long time. Beyond the berries I pick and immediately put into my mouth everything is ‘excess’ production.
      Let’s suppose that I pick enough berries to last me three days. I trade one day’s ration for a piece of bread and use the other to feed me while I build myself a chair that I am to use for many years to come. Where is the ‘excess’? I am desperately trying to save money so that I can stop working at some point to do…….. whatever. Is my saving ‘excess’ over production?
      The Marxist framework is just ludicrously stupid as it assumes that there is a knowable amount of resources and a measurable, fixed amount of human needs. The root of socialist analysis of anything is this arrogant presumption of knowledge. Human needs are infinite because the moment we satisfy one, we invent another.
      As I pointed out, saving for the future, capital accumulation is not only positive, but a necessary prerequisite of civilization itself.
      I could go into a lot more detail, I could also go technical analyzing the nature of trade or the structure of wages and profit, but I should not try to debate Marx in a comment to a post.
      As for your question, I don’t know. All I am certain of is that the Marxist framework is not helpful.
      To start, it would make sense to separate the economic and the political aspects. (Maybe I should write a post looking at the reasons behind Marxism’s conflation of the two.)
      I would call the Canadian reality we live in ‘mixed market social democracy’ which would be also true for most developed countries.
  2. That’s an interesting article, Zork Gábor Hun. That’s one point where we may have to agree to disagree. I think capitalism is a very positive term. But there certainly has been a lot of shying away from it. The most obvious example of this shying away is with libertarians jumping on the bandwagon and denouncing so-called “crony capitalism” and trying to distinguish it from real capitalism. It takes the form of a libertarian hearing a leftist denouncing capitalism and saying, yes, we libertarians are also opposed to crony capitalism. As if the left sees or understands the distinction. Another example is the common use of the term “free enterprise” or other euphemisms instead of capitalism.

    Perhaps my attachment to the term as a positive is because I was introduced to libertarian thought through Ayn Rand’s book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I still think of it as an ideal.

    If we eschew the term as you suggest, because the Marxists have framed the usage, what term should we use in its place? Free enterprise? Market economy? Free economy? It will not restrain the Marxist attack. They’ll still denounce capitalism, and by that they will mean exactly what we support – the free market economy where property is privately held. They will not be swayed by suggestions that the current mixed economy form of capitalism is bad and that our pure, unadulterated whatever-you-want-to-call-it is somehow good. In fact, from the virulent attacks on Ayn Rand and libertarianism in various moderate left-wing journals such as Slate, Salon, etc., it is clear that they hate libertarianism even more than the current state of affairs.

    Recently I reviewed Alex Epstein’s book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. He argues that fossil fuels have been great benefactors of mankind and are a force for good. He concludes by noting that even the producers of oil have accepted the global warming fear-mongers terms of reference and bend over backward to prove how green they are. Some oil companies, he notes, have gone so far in their efforts to appease their enemies that they don’t even mention the word “oil” on their websites. This, he maintains, is folly. He delivers a clarion call for industrial progress. “We don’t need to save the planet from human beings; we want to improve the planet for human beings,” he declares. “We need to say this loudly and proudly.” Epstein has spoken to many oil companies about improving their image, and step one is to be proud of what they produce and the great service it brings to mankind.

    For the same reason, I think libertarians need to stand loud and proud in favour of capitalism. Capitalism is freedom. Socialism is central control over human lives.

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